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GetClassical.org / My Voice
Blog with an interest in Classical Music, concert performance, interviews, reviews, music pedagogy
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Steven Isserlis meets the pearls of wisdom in Robert Schumann’s Advice to Young Musicians, originally meant to accompany the master’s renowned 1848 piano suite, Album for the Young, with directness and allure. Isserlis relates guidance from his vast experience as a performer, educator and writer/broadcaster, which, while closely based on Schumann’s precious aphorisms, adds his own didactic playfulness. His revised suggestions and bonus chapter, which outline his personal interpretations on Schumann’s original work in a light-hearted and humorous tone, avoid the trap of haughty weightiness while managing to address high-minded ideals with the seriousness of the matter at heart.

With recommendations like the importance “to stay true to one’s convictions, courageous in facing adversity and to never lose the love for music itself,” Isserlis keeps the conversation simple, real and encouraging, counterbalancing much of the anxiety-provoking frenzy that generally dominates the competitive scenes typical of music institutions.

With many contradicting opinions on the subject available, Isserlis does not underestimate the importance of putting things into perspective, especially when it comes to overzealous practice habits: “Genuine technical command allows us to play the music we’re performing without having to think about the [technical] difficulties; it gives us the freedom to listen to ourselves. The point of scales and exercises, ultimately, is to help our fingers/voices acquire the precision they need in order to produce the interpretation we hear in our heads/hearts.”

With his don’ts striking wit more often than his dos, he may just prevent another generation’s disastrous misconstruction of the craft: “…Don’t turn your performance into a lecture-recital! How many times does one play Bach, for instance and we hear from their playing what they’ve learned about double-dotting, ornamentation, etc.; and we also hear that they know when the music is changing key, because they take time over every modulation. The music will modulate whether you point it out or not…Ideally there should be no sense that you’ve made decisions in advance – more the impression that you are (re)creating as you perform. That way, the music you play will always sound alive – and new.”

Intrigued by the composer’s musical genius, Isserlis, an acclaimed British cellist, has devoted much of his illustrious career up to this point to Schumann’s oeuvre, making him a recipient of the Schumann Prize of the City of Zwieckau, where Schumann was born. The cellist’s chamber cycles have been staged internationally and include programs about varied aspects of the fascinating composer’s life and work, revealing a keen understanding and personal kinship to the fantastical world of the master’s imagination, musical idealism and purity.

Especially noteworthy are Isserlis’ efforts in ‘recovering’ the masters’ lesser-known works as part of a vehement effort to promote Schumann. In 2010, Schumann’s bicentenary, he wrote Grammophone (with Philistines in mind):

“Schumann’s music is curiously alive today. One cannot pigeonhole him (perhaps that’s why critics have difficulties); he is too experimental, too close to the edge of the known sound world. Harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally he is way ahead of his time – outside of time, in fact, looking simultaneously into the past and the future…In short, he is a genius, unlike any other, one who can lead us into worlds undreamed of by anyone else. Every time I work on his music (as I am now doing for my upcoming residence at the Cheltenham festival), I marvel afresh, not just at the power of his imagination, but also at the brilliance of his mind. It is so exciting to follow his thought patterns as he moulds formal conventions into new, half-hidden shapes: miracle after miracle,” he offers, explaining his ongoing fascination with Schumann, the man his work.

“This bicentenary is the chance for more of us to engage with him (concert promoters, record companies and performers permitting). Far be it from me to be fanatical – but if you catch anyone being condescending about any aspect of Schumann’s music or personality this year, please feel free to gently, but firmly, shoot them. For their own good.”

Isserlis’ examining of the master’s directions on how to implement artistic goals into routine principals could open up a slew of possible reflections on the creative process. He presents thoughtful critique on the role of the musician within society, the tradition of music education and the goal of music performance to a higher end, leaving room for a more in-depth evaluation of the creative experience of young musicians. While Isserlis could clearly analyze such matters in a wider context, he rather chooses here – in tune with Schumann’s inflections – to adhere to the more concrete approach, giving comprised, practical ‘how-to’ directions, and addressing the nascent musician in this intimate discourse.

Bestowed with a direct lineal heritage of musical tradition, as well as a code of ethics, by his great mentors Jane Cowan, Sándor Végh, György Kurtág and Ferenc Rados, each of whom inspired Isserlis the musician and helped shape Isserlis the cellist in their own personal manner, Isserlis the educator is in turn consistently reaching out to the next generation. About the teachers in his life he has said: “I think I am right in saying that all four of these unique visionaries, different as they were/are, shared a basic set of musical values. In every lesson I took or observed with any of them, there was an over-riding goal: to help the student realize the composer’s vision. It hardly needs saying that none of them were interested in career for its own sake – in treating music like a competitive sport, in fact, which alas is the case in all too many institutions around the world today. These sages followed their musical ideals, and tried to help others do the same; what is the point in being a musician if one is not an idealist?” (Quoted from his 2014 speech at the Prussia Cove Chamber Music Festival).

One of the fascinating discoveries of Isserlis’ mentorship may lie in his recognition that disciplined timing is everything. A set routine – a crucial element for the fostering of inspiration – builds a central aspect of his illustrated children books: Why Beethoven Threw the Stew and its sequel, Why Handel Waggled his Wig, both published by Faber and Faber in 2001 and 2006 respectively. Implementing good habits from the beginning, Isserlis describes the minutely detailed daily schedule of Tchaikovsky, for example, explaining the importance of making time for the mundane to the process of achieving the sublime: “Tchaikovsky will work from 9.30 until one o’clock. After that will come lunch, the main meal of the day, and then a walk of exactly two hours. (An hour and fifty-five minutes isn’t enough. Tchaikovsky is sure that he needs precisely two hours for the sake of his health.) He has to be alone for this, because he’s still composing in his head. The only problem is that the local children know that he’s a soft touch, because he loves children, and also because he loves to give his money away; so they will probably ambush him and beg for coins until he gives in and they run off, satisfied.” (Quoted from Why Handel Wagged his Wig).

Isserlis delivers his commentary with a particular ‘soft touch,’ always reflective of the joy he takes in passing his love for music and Schumann on to the next generation.

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From its 2011 beginnings in London’s bustling concert scene, the classical music series ASPECT embraced presentations that integrate classical music programs in a specific cultural framework. With its syllabus of accompanying talks surrounding its traditional classical music programs, examining everything from composers’ lives and the historic relevance of their works, to connections between musical expression, art and poetry, the not-for-profit foundation became widely frequented, especially within London’s large community of actively engaged amateur musicians.

A brainchild of Russian-American culture devotee and former pianist Irina Knaster, the series has now – parallel to Irina’s move to New York – found a new musical home at Columbia University’s Italian Academy. ( Photo credit: Andy Filimon – Irina Knaster surrounded by collaborating artists )

The series’ New York debut on October 5th featured a sold out one-off concert, exploring little known links between Mozart and Bach, whose works were performed by stellar artists. Violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky, cellist Sergey Antonov, violist Dov Scheindlin and pianist extraordinaire Ignat Solzhenitsyn collaborated in various combinations with remarks interjected by Yale’s renowned professor, musicologist Paul Berry to the evening’s thematic: “Bach and Mozart, a lasting influence.” Clearly caught up in his calling, his elucidations might have fared better with a little less lecturing from the page, but his remarks were informative and thoughtful; if perhaps a little too academic for most of the audience members’ tastes. Any disappointment, though, was more than made up for by the stellar musicians who performed with great excellence and passion. Also delightful was the socially openhanded reception in the venue’s substantial foyer following the concert; many of the attending audience members knew some of the musicians, the organizers, or each other, and the crowd’s chemistry and enjoyment clearly evidenced the value of one of ASEPCT’s attractions: a cohesive, active community of musical people and fans of the artists. The attendance of Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s famed mother Bella Davidovich, renowned as one of Russia’s iconic pianists and teachers, was a special bonus, and it did not take long for her to become surrounded by a flock of former students and admirers.

An important facet of the series’ inspiration though lies in its alliance with musicians who are not necessarily favored by mainstream audiences. Says Knaster: “Many of the greatest musicians are not interested in or just not invested enough to create a huge PR following around them, but they are the true ‘bread and butter’ musicians, dedicated to music for the sake of music. They devote every minute of their time and effort to their work, learning new repertoire, teaching and well, playing with musicians they enjoy working with already, not necessarily looking out for opportunities that will further their own careers. For me, those are the real kind of artists who deserve support and these are the kind of artists that should be featured in the series.” Knaster’s criterion for choosing performers for her series is neither following in-demand “young and sexy” performers, nor is she exclusively looking for artists who are hugely renowned. She says, “even though artists that have an interesting following are geared to bring along some attractive collaborations, every concert is different. Sometimes programming is conceived around a specific artist; sometimes artists bring a whole concept or a specific presentation along.” Thematic choices of the series have been open ended themes, like “Composers on Composers,” Musical Capitals,” “Great Muses,” or” Words on Music,” with performers touching on a specific angle. ( Photo credit: Andy Filimon, violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky and Paul Berry)

Sometimes it’s either the charismatic speaker who can have an enlightening impact, or the artist who connects particularly well with the audience. Thanks to the great support of the foundation’s sponsorship, Knaster has presented twenty-seven London concerts, pamphlets of each she collects in a big folder that she affectionately refers to as her ‘bible,’ flipping through the pages reminiscing, and a little bit in awe. She has received some positive press, including an article in The Strad, which she feels impacts her audiences less than it does her artists. “It’s a lot of trial and error that makes the series grow, and apparently the more parts there are to an event, the more there is that can go wrong,” she says. It is a risk, however, that the petite yet vigorous young woman, who admits to being somewhat of a perfectionist, is willing to take. “When it all comes together, it’s exhilarating,” she explains, “one of my favorite ones was actually the last concert in London; it just worked perfectly.”

She refers to a concert that centered on the love triangle of Shostakovich, Rostropovich and Britten, presented by BBC’s Lain Burnside, a concert she feels had exactly the right balance of instruction, music and personal input, and also benefitted from being presented in the amazing venue, she found after trying other locations for the series concerts: Notting Hill’s recently renovated 20th Century Theatre, which fit the ideal audience of 200 that Knaster had in mind. That last London evening was also enhanced by the presence of a former classmate of Rostropovich, equipped with old photos of him with Britten. “It was just special in every aspect, but projects are likely to take on a life of their own,” says Knaster.

Clearly the orchestration of every detail becomes much more important in an overall experience that focuses on music, but does not end there. “In the concert hall, people come to listen to the music, often holding their coat on their lap and then are getting up and leave without talking about their experience much, nor connecting with others. Here, you check your coat at the wardrobe, and you hopefully come away with an all-around meaningful encounter.”

Bringing the audience and the artists together, it seems the reception does fulfill an important objective, perhaps by balancing the emotional impact of the music, perhaps by affirming that audience members have become individual members of this newly-created social environment, or perhaps just by allowing that audiences continue to nourish and nosh.

While Knaster counts on the help of some of her former London collaborators, especially that of her former Art Professor, Patrick Bade, as well as longtime friend and BBC producer Misha Donat, getting started in New York brings a whole slew of new players onto her team.

Knaster’s versatile experiences are certainly a plus in her new endeavor. In addition to her education as a pianist, Knaster absolved a master’s program in art history and studied law, working as a corporate lawyer for an American company in Russia for many years during Russia’s phase of opening to the Western World. For personal advice, she has turned to New York’s legendary Edna Landau, co-founder of IMG and former personal manager of piano prodigy Evgeny Kissin. Edna, whose experience and endless knowledge of everything musical in the city, currently disperses career advice to conservatory students and musical talent throughout the country and knows just about every musician.

It looks like even if all the kinks haven’t been ironed out before Aspect’s next concert, it won’t take another twenty-seven concerts to land Knaster’s programing in the public eye as a local institution. New Yorkers may not be able to rely on a community of amateurs as huge and engaged as that which London has to offer, but the New York music scene is quick to pick up on refined programming and solid performers, and not one to dismiss socially accommodating presentations. With political worlds separating society increasingly, perhaps New York needs an active music community more than ever.

ASPECT’s next concert, titled “Romantic Vienna,” will take place on January 26th and will present works by the Austrian capital’s musical pillars that frame either end of the Romantic Movement: Schubert and Brahms. It will feature Arnaud Sussmann, violin, Paul Neubauer, viola, Rafael Figueroa, cello and Vsevolod Dvorkin, piano, emceed with an illustrated talk by BBC broadcaster Stephen Johnson. You can read more about this event and about the ASPECT Foundation at www.aspectfoundation.net.

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Opening night of this season at the 92Y featured its two rather contrasting highlights in the first half of the evening: George Tsontakis’ New York premiere of O MIKROS, O MEGAS, and Mozart’s Concerto No.23 in A major with pianist extraordinaire, MacArthur Fellow Jeremy Denk, performing as soloist with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO).

Photo credit: courtesy of 92Y

In its 58th season, the SPCO certainly may be regarded as a very remarkable chamber ensemble of its kind, consisting of a virtuoso cast of musicians of vast versatility primarily performing without a conductor. The ensemble is devoted to a broad spectrum of repertoire, possessing a dynamic and much-lauded interest in innovative contemporary works (to date, the SPCO has commissioned 146 new works).

This affinity shone in Tsontakis’ adventurous four-part composition, which the composer himself described as: “…a reflection on recent world circumstances including the tumbling world, loss of friends and [his] own personal advancement into the foothills of an ageless maturity.” The American-born Greek composer is currently composer-in-residence at the Bard Conservatory and Aspen Music Festival, and has formerly been affiliated with Oxford Philomusica, Albany Symphony and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

The virulent showcased piece, the title of which while announced personally by Tsontakis sounded vaguely more like an antioxidant remedy than a contemporary composition, offered a vibrant sonic spectrum of all strings within a life-affirming cosmic cycle. The title is in fact loosely inspired by the opening lines of Axion Esti, by contemporary Greek poet Odysseus Elytis: “Attos O Kosmos, O Mikros, O Megas,” (This tiny world, this enormous world).

Says Tsontakis: “It is to me that within the quietest and most inwardly moments of the work, the world seems to fully impose its power and enormity. At the same time, the figurative ‘flip-side’ of my work’s title could well be ‘This tiny fleeting life, this huge eternal life…’ There are faster movements among the four and imploding episodes, but the heart and largeness of the work are made manifest in the second and last. All movements end quietly, and the last with my most preferred ending, an [open ended] ‘dot dot dot’ figure…”

SPCO has previously collaborated with the composer on three of his works’ world premieres, earning a 2005 international Grawemeyer Award and Grammy nomination. It is this kind of artistic continuum – a special mark of the ensemble and fundamental criteria of its creative outlook, as well as a pursuit of mutual growth with its associated artists – that has inspired many musicians, and has in turn had a significant impact on the ensemble’s advancement. Artistic partners of the ensemble throughout the years have included renowned soloists like Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Christian Zacharias, Joshua Bell and Dawn Upshaw.

Among the current flock of collaborating artistic partners are Martin Fröst, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Thomas Zehetmayer and Jeremy Denk, who, in a most sparkling interaction brought out the full range of Mozart’s concerto to the stage – very different from Tsontakis’ piece, yet equal in energy and power.

The intense and gratifying interface between the pianist and the ensemble’s own Alexander Fiterstein is particularly worthy of note; Denk often leaned in sideways to listen closely to the essential clarinet part. The musicians know each other well. Since 2014 the pianist partners with SPCO in collaborative performances. Named one of the best of 2012 by The New Yorker,  his debut recording for Nonesuch paired old and new masterworks; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32, Op.111, with Gyorgy Ligeti’s Études.

This juxta-positioning tends to not only highlight the immense differences between two worlds,  but brings out many new sounding idioms in the traditional pieces, while giving gravity to the new. It seem to lend the listener a different perspective and outlook, leading to a deeper understanding of both – a comparative listening course.

As was felt in the evening’s performance, there were connecting elements but also keen differences, sharpening the ear and mind. What comes before matters, setting  up a different mood for what is to follow; programming matters. And if what follows is as lively and refined as it was here, that also impacts how one feels about what had come before – making this a complete experience.

Touring nationally and internationally, SPCO has recently fortified its local presence with its own Ordway Concert Hall, but the orchestra’s dedication to community outreach, evidenced by its educational and family-oriented programming and notably affordable ticket subscriptions, has also motivated the organization to program accessible concerts in venues throughout the various neighborhoods of the Twin cities’ metropolitan area. Rather than investing in a grandiose orchestral format requiring highly-funded conductor posts, under the leadership of Managing Director and President Jon Limbacher, SPCO invests into its instrumental performers and nourishes wider audiences, “expanding accessibility even further by inviting children and students to attend unlimited SPCO concerts for free.” This, of course, is an approach shared by the 92Y with its many benefits and special offers like the “Majors for Minors” program, which allows for kids and teens aged 8-18 to attend concerts for free with only one adult ticket purchase.

It has been five years since SPCO performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and the orchestra was welcomed to the 92Y enthusiastically by a sold out hall; only  few audience members left after intermission before the Schubert Symphony, No.2 in B-flat major, which while proficiently performed, did not live up fully to the elated exhilaration of the evening’s first half.

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With haunting anticipation, Jeff Russo’s opening theme for HBO’s eight-part summer series The Night Of widens with each of its deliberate, rhythmic reiterations. Musical sustenance and orchestral tonal layers are gradually added to the cello’s persevering melodic lines, giving a voice to the dark mood that will escort the inner turmoil of its central characters throughout the show’s unhurriedly evolving plot: musical drama unfolding at the vanguard of cinematography.

PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED ON BLOG CRITICS

Russo’s score is geared not only to enhance the cinematic frames, as do many film scores, composed afterwards to fit the screen’s visual fabric. An original composition in its own right, it was actually written before the film, as Russo explains: “The musical development of the film really started with the main theme, which I wrote first and sent to Steve.” Steve Zaillian, director and writer/producer of The Night Of, is best known for his work on Schindler’s List. Together with Richard Price of HBO’s The Wire, Russo and Zaillian developed the series loosely based on the BBC series Criminal Justice.

jeff-russ-powerRusso, a self-taught musician and founding member of the rock band Tonic, has become a much sought-after collaborator in creating original film scores, a genre he took to immediately after working with Wendy Melvoin, a former Prince collaborator. The first time he tried his hand at writing a film score was in 2005, when he composed for the short filmVesting by Mason Bendewald.

Since the Emmy nomination for his elegant score for season one of the FX series Fargo, Russo has become a household name in the industry. Currently his soundtracks are featured on several recent projects in production or on air, among them CBS’s American Gothic. But it seems that on the production of The Night Of, things went a little bit differently than they usually do.

For the first time in his orchestral recordings, Russo introduced the so-called “European” orchestral set-up, which he continued for American Gothic. “That idea was born from wanting melodies to happen on the left and right side of the stereo spectrum, enveloping the listener,” he says. The set-up meshes effectively with the intimate atmosphere surrounding The Night Of’s characters and moods.

What also seems quite an exceptional circumstance, and a deviation from the usual process of show development, is that the music became a profoundly integral part of the show’s narrative, influencing the film’s atmospheric pace from the beginning. “My first pass at that piece is what you actually hear in the main title of the show. They cut the picture to fit the music, which is actually quite rare,” Russo says, explaining that “[a]s the themes progressed, the atmosphere of the show was taken from those themes, and the underscore was derived from most of these recordings.”

Used sparingly, the soundtrack’s thrums symbolize the unsettling, slow reality of prison life, or everyday life itself, supporting visually obscured camera angles that leave room for subtle perception, rather than head-on shots that create a glaring cinematographic reality. “Using silence as score can help make the music way more effective, especially in long pieces,” Russo says. The score excels in its atmospheric overtones, echoing the mysterious and questionable multifaceted layers of justice and reality that The Night Of observes.

The cello, one of Russo’s favorite instruments, recurs in a stirring tone of voice reflecting the humanity of the show’s emotionally complex characters. Sometimes a character is accompanied by an associated instrument upon entering a scene. For example, the cello’s melodic sound accompanies the initially naïve-appearing Pakistani-American college student Naz, played by Riz Ahmed, whose one night out on the town in New York City leaves him on trial for the brutal murder of a young woman.

More high-pitched, the violin is the instrument chosen to mark the entrance of Naz’s trial lawyer, John Stone, played with high intensity by John Turturro. Though it was a passion part intended for the late James Gandolfini, Turturro makes it his own.

While the film is suggestive in its take on societal injustices like racial discrimination, the devastating conditions of prison life, and the slow-moving wheels of the justice system, it does not offer solutions. Open-ended even in its trial conclusion, The Night Of relies on its characters’ humanity for plot development.

More than Naz, whose inner turmoil leaves him to appear more hardened with each episode, it is those around him, like Stone, whose character growth we latch onto as viewers, feeling the impact of his empathy for Naz and his perception of his client’s innocence vicariously as viewers. With extraordinary emotional depth and charisma surpassing his own character’s limitations and grievances, Stone argues that justice is a perspective of our emotions and our humanity; he feels compelled to fight for Naz’s innocence the moment he laid eyes on him: “At the end it’s about how you feel about this man,” says Stone in his concluding argument, pleading for empathy from the jury.

Emotions run high in The Night Of, making it the kind of special collaboration Russo can best relate to: “I am an emotional guy myself,” he explains. “The whole film is edited around the beats of the music. Sometimes music is a vehicle to cover up visual scenes in the film that did not work. This was not at all the case here,” he says.

“I was inspired by the narrative and the exceptional creativity of the film’s maker, [and] I always feel that music is the emotional center or heart of any narrative. In the case of The Night Of, it was important for the producers that the music not comment on the narrative but simply support and be omnipresent, as if to be looking down from the scene from above. I could feel that [approach] was necessary from my first viewing of the show.”

The result is a show that flawlessly weaves together its visual and audial components, which speaks to the mutual inspiration of the collaborative experience that was its creation.

The Night Of play the theme song

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capture by Tony Leonardo Cimino

An integral part of the ever mounting – and at times interlacing – culture cycles initiated by Lincoln Center, the festival, now middle-aged, expands its efforts to rejuvenate and expand its communal presence. Exploring the impacts of varied programs and settings in different social contexts, the festival creates diverse concert experiences, with broader accessibility and intimate immersion in music its goals.

Keeping with tradition, today’s Mostly Mozart avoids fixating on preconceived definitions or micromanaging its contextual relevance. It’s a continuous balancing act between established repertoire and innovation.

Instead, there is Mozart – programs densely packed with featured works across his vast opus of instrumental, choral and operatic works, performed by the festival’s own Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under its artistic director Louis Langrée, with famed soloists and guest ensembles – and then there is everything else.

Over the years the festival has extended its realm from early Baroque to new commissions – 50 presented here by International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), the dynamic ensemble in residence – with one premiere each year, perhaps to make up for times when contemporary music had no place at Lincoln Center. Many of ICE’s micro-concerts, dispersed throughout the campus and the duration of the festival, set out to engage new audiences with free, public appearances.

The festival’s muse transcends genres freely without limiting each experience to a rigid context, casting a vote of confidence for each of its artistic productions and impressive artists. With programs buzzing with fluid formats, its curator, Lincoln Center’s ‘Ehrenkranz Artistic Director’,  Jane Moss, often succeeds in engaging with Mozart as trendsetter of an ever-evolving brand.

This article by Ilona Oltuski has been previously published by BLOGCRITICS on 9-2-16

PR for Mozart: souvenir buttons from the library’s collection, courtesy of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

Under the title “Mozart Forever,” an exhibit at the Public Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center accompanied the Mostly Mozart festival’s 50th anniversary, running the length of its five week-long season from July 22 through August 27. Showcasing highlights from the festival’s history, the exhibit attests to its huge popularity and early knack for free-spirited ambiance– always without neckties – since its inaugural inception in 1966 as “Midsummer Serenades: A Mozart Festival” by Lincoln Center’s William W.Lockwood Jr. The festival was coined “Mostly Mozart” in 1970.

The goal was to fill the summertime vacancy, attracting new audiences to classical music with concerts held in informal atmospheres, and offering high entertainment value at ticket prices as low as $3.

“Air-conditioning had been the ultimate game changer, making concerts during the summer season possible for the first time,” explains Gerard Schwarz, the orchestra’s first director, now director emeritus. “Here was a chance to fill the Philharmonic Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, while its musicians went on tour, performed in parks or took their personal vacation time off.”

Harking back to the festival’s initial success, Schwarz added: “Mozart’s symphonic works were not performed much at the time, partially due to the fact that every great guest orchestra that came to town wanted to show off their full orchestra, not required in Mozart. The same was true for season programs of the New York Philharmonic – instead of using only 35-40 players in a Mozart program, they wanted to engage all of their 80-90 players, sometimes even 100 or more in a great Mahler 5th Symphony. So here was a great chance to dive into these neglected works.”

Since 1968, works by Haydn (hence the term “mostly”) and then by Handel, Schubert and Beethoven were added to the repertoire to attract more accomplished soloists and visiting guest conductors to the festival. Some of its differing forms of presentation, including popular midnight concerts and pre-concert recitals, were in place early on in the festival’s history. But despite varying presentations and additions, the festival’s repertoire maintained a focus on the wide range of Mozart’s vocal and instrumental oeuvre.

Poster ad from the library’s exhibit

Entering the Lincoln Center arena as Vice President of programming in 1992, and now Ehrenkranz Artistic Director, Jane Moss relieved Lockwood, the festival’s original founding director, bringing new aspirations along. “She always had an extraordinary vision,” says Schwarz, who had been brought in as the festival orchestra’s first full-time Artistic Director in 1982. For 20 years his mission was to craft for the orchestra a consistent musical point of view. Established in 1973, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra consisted mainly of freelance musicians from the New York Chamber Orchestra.

“The musical goal at the time had been to enjoy traditional masterpieces on a high artistic level, not to challenge the status quo,” says Schwarz. “That was what I was hired for, and what’s wrong with a really great performance of a traditional masterpiece? At the time, no one looked for avant-garde, but we did want to expand beyond performing all Mozart concerti and symphonies into performing works by composers who influenced Mozart, like Johann Christian Bach (son of Johann Sebastian), who wrote the first concerti that Mozart orchestrated, and in turn, show works by artists who had been influenced by his work, like Tchaikovsky in his first concerto.”

Under Schwarz’s orchestral leadership, the festival expanded its name recognition and added to its long list of prominent performers, including, according to Schwarz, “Zukerman, Perlman, Mintz, Starker, Bronfman, Ax, Watts, Emerson String Quartet, Joshua Bell, and Cecilia Bartoli,” who “had her debut” at Mostly Mozart. The orchestra’s performance schedule also broadened beyond the summer festival, growing to include visiting tours around the United States and abroad.

From the library exhibit: Al Hirschfeld sketch of the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with Gerard Schwarz conducting 

In Salzburg, the epicenter of everything Mozart, the answer to the quest for contemporary programs required a separate response to the traditional festival spectacle: its contemporary music festival “Dialogues,” initiated in 2006. New Yorkers, by contrast, consistent with the city’s diverse canon, enjoy their Mozart fare in a conglomerate of sundry collectives, old and new. Today, contemporary music does not faze New York’s traditional classical music loyalists; it has been accepted as part of our broad artistic curriculum, begrudgingly by some, but by others with open arms, among them fervent critics and the festival’s curator, Jane Moss.

Schwarz, who has worked on Mostly Mozart with Moss for 10 years, describes Moss’s aspirations: “Replacing Lockwood at Mostly Mozart, Moss had a very broad vision and was more interested in cutting-edge new music. She originally had made the case for a new platform, ‘The Lincoln Center Festival,’ at Avery Fisher Hall (renamed in 1976) for its upcoming renovation in 1993.” Instead of executing her vision at the reign of the new festival, though, it was famed critic and arts administrator John Rockwell who took on the new festival’s leadership until 1998, followed by its former executive director Niguel Redden, who built the Lincoln Center Festival into a showcase of diverse performances of international theater, circus, and music, with artists and productions from more than 50 countries.

Louis Langrée speaks at “Meet the Musicians of the Mozart Festival Orchestra” at David Rubinstein Atrium. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

Moss, besides curating further themed initiatives like the White Light Festival, which made use of Lincoln Center’s entire complex, and other seasonal and recurring programs like Lincoln Center Outdoors, was left to revitalize Mostly Mozart, steering it towards a new and bolder brand. Following Schwarz as the orchestra’s director was Louis Langrée, who has now served as the Renée and Robert Belfer Music Director for 14 seasons.

During the festival’s free public conversation at the David Rubinstein Atrium, “Meet the Musicians of the Mozart Festival Orchestra,” audiences had an interesting opportunity to familiarize themselves with the vision of the festival’s impresario and the orchestra’s tirelessly cheery and engaging leader: “It is here, at Mostly Mozart, so many people have experienced classical music for the first time,” says Langrée, thoughtful in his charming French accent. “That’s a lot of responsibility, and at the same time a great source of delight. One never gets to perform so much of Mozart’s works at once during the concert season calendar, and it allows one to go deeper here and to discover new layers. At the same time Mozart was such a central figure of Western music; his great imagination that transcended through all musical genres made him an inspiration for the next generations.”

Moss took those thoughts a step further, claiming, with no resistance, Mozart as the innovator: an ideal fulcrum for exploring new musical horizons. “Mozart was a contemporary composer in his time. He would definitely want us to be looking at the new.”

Coming to Lincoln Center from the world of theater, Moss composed a particular coalition of genres, platforms and scenery with dramatic inclinations, each informing the others.

Photo: Jane Moss during Meet the Musicians podium discussion by Ilona Oltuski

She is not afraid to label productions more for their entertainment value than for highbrow artistic purpose; the arias-potpourri of Mostly Mozart’s opening night gala including selections from Mozart’s operas and entitled “The Illuminated Heart” is a good example.

With its great collective of performers and clever incorporation of screened images onto the stage, the gala was an introductory forum into famed Mozart melodies that was welcoming and highly entertaining if abbreviated, hardly allowing for the full, dramatic expansion of any complete version; two examples of Mozart’s fully-staged works, however, were shown during the festival’s season.  Opera Arias Potpourri: ‘The Illuminated Heart,’ Photo by llona Oltuski

For many soloists who have made their debuts at Mostly Mozart, the festival is known as a springboard for international careers. This season’s free orchestral opening performance at Damrosch Park featured Simone Porter performing Mozart’s serene Violin Concerto No. 3.

Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Louis Langrée, conductor, Simone Porter, violin (Mostly Mozart debut) Photographed Friday, July 22, 2016 at 7:30 PM at Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, New York, NY. Photograph: © 2016 Richard Termine

In response to the premise that we are spoiled with star appearances but often unenthused by the anonymity of the great halls, one of Mostly Mozart’s most popular series, the intimate “A Little Night Music,” has lately taken on a sexy magnetism, attracting mostly young and charismatic individual performers to appear at Lincoln Center’s own Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse. After having performed Mozart’s clarinet concerto at David Geffen Hall, exciting European clarinet star Martin Fröst, flown in with stellar piano accompanist Roland Pöntinen directly from the Verbier Festival, played for enthralled audiences who were seated cabaret-style, his alluring sounds and lithe, pied piper-like gesticulations entertaining the audience members as they sipped their wine.

Photo: Eman Hassan for the New York TImes: Clarinetist Martin Froest and Pianist Roland Pontien at Stanley H.Kaplan Penthouse – A little Night Music

Also at the Penthouse, profound Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan, renowned recently as “artist-in-association” with the New York Philharmonic, made use of the attentive if short-spanned concentration of this late night session, presenting his thoughtful “New Suite,” a selection of short pieces ranging from Handel, Bach, Rameau and Couperin to Ravel, Thomas Adès, Ligeti and Barber, played through in a continuous flow during one sitting.

The New York Philharmonic recently featured Barnatan, among other artists, in a trendy concert presentation at an intimate downtown venue. Moss’s use of Lincoln Center’s Penthouse as a cool, elegant alternative is a notable, perhaps ingenious tactic for bringing the personal staging and downtown vibe of these salon-style shows home.

At the other end of the spectrum, astounding by its sheer size, stands the display of populist egalitarianism in the premiere of David Lang’s “the public domain” for 1,000 voices, performed by an amateur chorus picked from all of New York City’s boroughs. Unlike New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, who penned a gleaming review of the momentous choral performance, while watching from the balcony above the imposing gathering I failed to pick up on the intensity of this work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. In fact I could hardly hear the choral group’s many murmuring voices emerging through the hazy and steaming hot plaza.

Performance of 'the public domain' by David Lang. Photo by Ilona Oltuski, with an excerpt of the original score Performance of ‘the public domain’ by David Lang. Photo by Ilona Oltuski, with an excerpt of the original score

I did, however, find the piece’s context fascinating. According to Lang: “All the texts are internet search engine auto-completions of the sentence ‘One thing we all have is our…’ which gave me a list of sometimes very personal statements, from people all around the world. I didn’t use all of them. I took out those that referred to specific people, that insulted or praised a person or group, that said anything – good or bad – about a particular religion or nationality or gender, that endorsed or disparaged a particular commercial product or activity, that were pornographic. My interest was to make a text that would seem in some way universal, a list of attributes we might all agree on, that could feel in some way universal.”

The well-organized spectacle, under the direction of choreographer Annie B. Parson and conductor Simon Halsey, is worth mentioning, as it filled the entire Josie Robertson Plaza in stands around the fountain. The atmosphere was dominated by the emotional excitement of its partaking members and viewers alike. It reminded me of the citywide Make Music events such as Make Music New York, promoting the inclusive spirit inherent in all music making and embodying a sentiment we all seem to crave, a desire to bridge our differences with our common humanity in these volatile times of social and political ambiguity and isolation.

Mostly Mozart’s increasingly open-ended curatorial vision and shifting dimensions have raised the bar of its narrative, with the new and old illuminating each other’s perspectives. Programming for multiple tastes also makes the festival easily approachable, and there is something playful about its outstretched musical and physical territorial reach. This year’s events took place in 11 different locations within Lincoln Center’s campus, with some of the events grouped to allow for sequential visits and provide an immersive effect through interrelating spatial and sonic experiences.

David Geffen Hall’s more intimate ceiling and thrust stage set up for Mostly Mozart Festival. Photo from Mostly Mozart Festival on Facebook by Ruby Lan

Lincoln Center’s setting for the festival’s smaller orchestral lineup at David Geffen Hall was altered in the 2005 season to include a temporary thrust stage over its first 11 rows, giving it a more intimate presence and making it possible for audiences to surround the orchestra. Additionally, while resembling a design feature that may be found at an airport lounge, an added ceiling structure helps to maintain the warmth of the sound, and also provides additional lighting for a softer glow during performances.

For the first time, Lincoln Center’s Public Library, under its prolific artistic producer Evan Leslie, collaborated with the festival on three occasions, coming up with fun ways to enlighten audiences. An entertaining and free Pub Quiz of “Mostly Mozart Trivia” was held at the David Rubinstein Atrium in collaboration with ICE, effortlessly engaging audiences in entertaining and educational activity.

Members of ICE at David Rubinstein Atrium, Photo by Ilona Oltuski

Leslie also hosted an interview with pianist Emanuel Ax at the library. A beloved New York musical figure and a festival fixture for many years, Ax shared excerpts of his favorite playlist ranging from opera to jazz, all drawn from a collection of the library’s treasure trove of recordings. The musical interludes were spiced up with personal anecdotes from Ax’s extensive performance career. One of the musical qualities most revered by the pianist, “the directness in music making,” came through in his own refined performance at David Geffen Hall with the eminent Emerson String Quartet of works by Purcell, Schubert and Dvorák.

The festival’s own orchestral ensemble was featured in various collectives during the season, most convincingly in smaller ensembles, but also in a truly tremendous configuration under the baton of Louis Langrée, performing the lively Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D-minor in a remarkable collaboration with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes at Alice Tully Hall. Andsnes’s collaboration in Webern’s arrangement of Bach’s “Ricarcar” with a trio of musicians from the orchestra was remarkable.

Photo: Robert Altman for the New York Times, Leif Ove Andsnes (piano) with Ruggero Allifranchini (left) Ilya Finkelshteyn and Shmuel Katz at Alice Tully Hall

The generally energetic and stylistically convincing performance of the full orchestra, however, varied. In one performance at David Geffen Hall under the baton of guest conductor Matthew Halls, the orchestra’s coherence and tempi, despite joining forces with the velvety singing tone of violinist Joshua Bell, were less successful.

The author with violinist Joshua Bell. Photo by Heidi Frederick

My personal, selective listening perspective of the season’s vast catalog came to an end with “Mozart Dances” at the David B. Koch Theater. The reprise of a 2007 New York performance of the work, presenting a brilliant fusion of classical and modern dance by choreographer Mark Morris set to three Mozart pieces, had everything one could wish for: expressivity, sarcasm, eccentrics and genuine character; but most of all, the performance showed a requisite sensitivity for the underlying musical structures in Mozart, structures not easy to translate into dance.

In a public discussion between the music director and choreographer, it became obvious how the ideal rhythmic interpretation and fluctuations in tempo vary between the contexts of a music ensemble and a dance troupe. Morris used abrupt angles and ornamentations to draw a swift, often humorous aesthetic vernacular from his dancers’ bodies. He often juxtaposed graceful classical ballet movement with anti-classical positions, like en croix demi-pliés, or matched elongated grand battements with abrupt exits in which the performers stomped off the stage. The dancers’ caprice and playfulness was wholly reflected in the music, yet there was also a tangible intimacy to the score which remained inherent in the dance. Langrée adapted the execution of the score in complete coherence with the choreography with radiant support from pianist Garrick Ohlsson in both concerti (No. 11 in F major, K. 413 and No. 27 in B-flat-minor, K. 595), but especially impressive in unison with pianist Inon Barnatan in the majestic Sonata in D major, K. 448 for two pianos, performed in between the concerti.

Mark Morris Dance Group in “Mozart Dances.” Photo by Richard Termine

Over its 50 years, the Mostly Mozart Festival has built a large following, enjoyed an international reputation and presented A-list performers, all while tending to the shifting expectations of trendy New Yorkers. Under Moss and its current music director Louis Langrée, it genially circumvents the self-imposed restriction of its catchy name. One may insist on the purity of Mozart and balk at the increasing blurring of the festival’s programmatic lines, but one may also argue that Lincoln Center’s curators’ separate visions and means inspire a flow of different, invigorating productions that ultimately benefit audiences by presenting a broad range of work. It’s no secret that the festival’s growth into an internationally renowned urban cultural summit derives from its ability to keep its traditional integrity while freely allowing for conceptual expansion.

For more information about the drawing by Tony Leonardo Cimino please contact him at: http://tonyleonardocimino.com/

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WRITING MUSIC INTO FICTION

By Roland Colton

As an amateur pianist with a passion for classical music who also loves to read great fiction, I have often lamented the dearth of novels in this genre. Several years ago, a story began to form in my mind that centered upon a gifted young pianist in Victorian England. It took me a while to put pen to paper as the task of writing a novel seemed utterly daunting. But once I had written several key scenes, I found myself carried away in an unexpected creative surge that ultimately culminated in the completion of a manuscript entitled Forever Gentleman. After sending out queries, I was delighted to receive a book contract from an east coast publisher last fall and the book was released to the public just three weeks ago.

My intention was to write a story that would appeal to those who love classical music, and particularly to pianists. However, the book is much more than a novel about music; it is also a mystery, a romance, teeming with suspense, intrigue, mistaken identities and unexpected twists and turns. My novel takes readers back in time to nineteenth-century London, a city of beauty and brilliance, and a city steeped in filth and despair. The protagonist, Nathan Sinclair, a struggling architect and gift pianist, lives in both worlds, mingling in high society while dwelling in suffocating debt and poverty.

One of the challenges I faced in writing the book, was to depict with words, the music that accompanies the story. To better accomplish this task, I attempted to learn and play compositions that taxed my ability as an amateur pianist. In the opening chapter of the book, Nathan performs Chopin’s Quatrième Ballade, a work I had never seriously considered learning, but nevertheless was one of my favorites. Working from the back forward (as I was taught to do in my youth), I gained increased respect and awe for pianists able to master that brilliant composition. Delving deeply into this and many other works helped me to better put into words the music that appears in the book.

Another challenge was to dramatize the age of musical and artistic enlightenment and the deluge of creativity that existed during the nineteenth century. In my opinion, there is no better way to travel back in time than to hear music from a bygone era. I wanted readers to relive this age of creativity and experience the music in a contemporary context, not as a distant voice from centuries past. Writing this novel also gave me an opportunity to create scenes that I, as a classical music enthusiast, would dearly love to see take place in a book or movie. One of those scenes is every amateur pianist’s dream, but one, unfortunately, which I dare not share, for fear of spoiling the surprise.

The setting of my story also coincides with the development of the modern-day piano, revolutionary in its day, when craftsmen had developed a rim-bending process that was said to give pianos a remarkable sound and character. We experience the moment through Nathan’s eyes when he first encounters the extraordinary Steinway concert grand–winner of the Grand Gold Medal of Honor at the Paris Exhibition. We observe Nathan as he caresses the stunning rosewood finish and imagine the musical vibrations the instrument will create, before he finally raises his hands above the keyboard to play Liszt’s Concert Etude in D-flat major.

Finally, I endeavored to document, in my story, the dexterity, dynamics and beauty of compositions well known today and others that have disappeared from today’s repertoire. In doing so, I attempted to select words and phrases that would re-create, in some small way, the challenges of performing the music as well as how the music stirs the listener’s ear. Writing music into fiction has helped me gain an even greater appreciation for the brilliance, imagination and creativity of the prodigious composers from the past.

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Roland Colton is a trial attorney, classical pianist, and author of the historical novel, Forever Gentleman.  For more information about Colton and his work, visit www.rolandcolton.com.

FOR A FREE GIVE AWAY OF “FOREVER GENTLEMAN” CONTACT ILONA@GETCLASSICAL.ORG

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Short of the national “red, white and blue,” the National Youth Orchestra’s featured dress code on Carnegie Hall’s stage incorporated red slacks, white shirts and black blazers, with Converse-style sneakers adding a youthful touch. Despite the teenagers’ adolescent appearance, they could be judged on a rather adult level of performance as they cautiously, but deliberately held back in Mozart’s subtle virtuoso passages, so as not to undermine master pianist Emanuel Ax, known endearingly as Manny to New Yorkers. The teens later befittingly let loose in Bruckner’s bursts of amalgamated power and dexterity, energetically coaxed by the veteran leadership of iconic Christoph Eschenbach.   (photo credit:Chris Lee)

As music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eschenbach, known to enjoy working with young talent, understands not only how to lucidly direct young musicians through his communicative body language, but how to pull his audience into the elementary pathos and summits of musical drama.

Given the packed hall and high level of musicianship, providing a hopeful outlook on sustaining the future of classical music, one can’t help but wonder why it took until 2012 to reinstate pre-World War II attempts to unite young talent on a national level, specifically Leopold Stokowski’s short-lived effort to establish the All-American Youth Orchestra from 1940 until 1942.

For British-born Sir Clive Gillinson, Carnegie Hall’s leading force since 2005, the inspiration gained by young musicians partaking in such an overarching collaboration was the decisive element behind initiating NYO, which he implemented as a major community outreach program within Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute’s education wing. “It is so important to be here together with the greatest young players in the country,” he exclaims, “and the implications are manifold. We can inspire them, simply by not being a big fish in a little pond, but becoming a part of the big pond. They may decide to rise to the challenge and inspire us in turn, in whatever field they will choose. They also are our ambassadors and carry the best of our messages. It is a virtuous circle.” Most significantly perhaps, Gillinson experienced the impact personally when – as a teenage cellist growing up in Great Britain – he was given the opportunity to perform with the National Youth Orchestra there. “It was one of the greatest experiences for me, an eye opener,” he remembers, “that put music in the center of my life.”

This continued to hold true throughout Gillinson’s many years with the London Symphony Orchestra as a cellist, and then as its managing director in 1984. Before coming to Carnegie Hall, his pioneering vision brought about many new changes at LSO, including the orchestra’s installation at the Barbican Centre, as well as the establishment of LSO’s own label for presenting their live-recorded performances. Archiving and sharing live performances continue to be an important way to manifest the cultural message. Just before our meeting, Gillinson prepared his interview about NYO with WQXR, who will broadcast NYO’s Carnegie Hall performance later this year.

For his vision for NYO-USA, Gillinson closely followed the principles of the established National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Following the practices of its model across the pond, the NYO-USA residency entails that the musicians’ two weeks’ preparation at Purchase College is assisted by principal musicians from professional American orchestras, and overseen by the orchestra director — a position that varies from season to season, leaving room to engage renowned guest conductors.     (Clive Gillinson, photo credit: Peter Murphy)

NYO-USA’s first concerts were held in 2013, and the concept grew more ambitious each year. The brilliant featuring of star soloists like violinists Joshua Bell, Gil Shaham and last year, pianist YUNDI, did not only up the ante, but opened international concert venue doors to the orchestra for future summer tours. Traveling as musicians with world-renowned soloists and conductors like Valery Gergiev, David Robertson, Charles Dutoit or now Christoph Eschenbach, and serving as ambassadors abroad, has a lasting effect on the young participants, who must be age 16-19 and hold American citizenship or a green card to participate in touring. “They can’t be enrolled fulltime in a college-level conservatory or a music department on an instrumental performance major, that’s why many conductors and soloists who have performed with these young orchestral players, are so surprised by the high level of musicianship,” says Synneve Carlino, director of PR at Carnegie Hall. Two recommendations are also required in order to be considered in NYO’s nationwide, egalitarian search for excellence, in which participation is free–of–charge, no matter from where participants travel.

“New technology is partially to blame for spreading the word more swiftly,” explains Carnegie Hall’s Synneve Carlino about online applications like DecisionDesk, which facilitate the extraordinarily broad reach of modern application processes. “We put out the word and applicants can simply sign up and introduce themselves and their talent with a personal video clip,” says Carlino.

NYO-USA is a remarkable institution on its own, but Gillinson is not one to rest on his laurels. With the launch of NYO2 this year, he has already managed to broaden his original vision exponentially, catering to an even younger talent pool of musicians age 12-17 with the goal to expand classical music’s reach even further. Recognizing that musical talent forms early on, NYO2’s special agenda is to come into communities that are underserved and underrepresented in the field of classical music. This younger group of musicians will also form a natural pre-selection, potentially feeding into the orchestra, or other music-related fields. Among this year’s 109 NYO2 participants, two apprentice composers and conductors, as well as a librarian joined the program.

Passion about classical music goes beyond the narrow field of the professional performing artist. Planting the seed of love for classical music-by-doing is essential for bringing the next generation not only to the stage, but into the hall.

The tour travels on meeting Valery Gergiev for the next concert at Amsterdam’s Het Concert Gebouw. (photo credit Chris Lee)

NYO-USA 2016 at Carnegie Hall:  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No.22 in E-flat Major, K.482  pianist Emanuel Ax

Anton Bruckner, Symphony No. 6 in A major.  conductor: Christoph Eschenbach

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American cellist David Finckel and Taiwanese pianist Wu Han need no further introduction to visitors of “Chamber Music Encounters,” an intense 6-day educational chamber music workshop, and their latest brainchild under the auspices of Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. Culminating in a free concert performance at Alice Tully Hall, audiences shared the results of a dynamic coaching effort focused on communal mentorship between CMS’ Encounters renowned faculty and new talent. In the sessions, which implement paradigm-shifting coaching conduct based on workshops led by the late Isaac Stern, students are challenged to relate to multiple masters’ viewpoints while making the music their own. With live-streamed workshop sessions, CMS indulges even remote audiences with a behind-the-scenes peek into their chambers of music making, brimming with eagerness and motivation.

Wu Han and David Finckel (Photo credit: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

David Finckel and Wu Han, the powerhouse couple of chamber music named “Musicians of the Year” by Musical America in 2012, have spearheaded artistic leadership at CMS since 2004. Chamber Music Encounters, presented in collaboration with The Juilliard School, represents yet another educational initiative in their ever-growing New York performance series. A blend of artistic excellence and savvy entrepreneurship, the secret of this series’ enduring success is not only found in the sauce: a meaty title of largest worldwide producer and presenter of chamber music, but in the spice, as the institution has gained substantial critical acclaim for its omnipresent high standards, and inspiring artistic verve and vision.

Together with Wu Han, his partner in life and music, Finckel began establishing a network of chamber music institutions during the early days of his busy touring and recording schedule with the eminent Emerson String Quartet, which he only just left in 2013. Educating young musicians has always front-lined the duo’s activities. Han and Finckel began their appointment as Artistic Directors of CMS at Lincoln Center not long after founding Music@Menlo in 2003 in San Francisco’s Bay area. Their beginnings at Lincoln Center in 2004 opened up the prospect of a dynamic bi-coastal artistic exchange.

When Han was approached in 2009 to bring the culture of chamber music to Taiwan and Korea, the infinite potential of leading international artistic and educational initiatives became apparent, and the pair set off. Backed by a grant-supported effort to provide performance culture and give back to its local music community, Chamber Music Today was established in Seoul in 2011 as an annual music festival with its own Chamber Music School supported by LG. With recent enterprises that include co-commissions of new works with London’s Wigmore Hall, and the latest addition of CMS’ residence at SPAC, the artistic summer retreat of New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Saratoga in 2014, a spider web of alliances continues to spring up throughout Europe and the US, solidifying the pair’s identities as engineers of chamber music education and collaboration. “We are chamber musicians and there is a whole new generation out there that needs to perform; that’s what we do. It’s a constant work in progress and to keep it in flux these ‘satellite’ venues, as we call them, are vitally important to the growth and emanation of the work,” explains Finckel.

Hands on approach: David Finckel during an Encounter session (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)

To perform chamber music, musicians require not only the talent and technique to master great accountability for their own instruments’ parts, but they must navigate nuanced musical and inter-relational sensitivity to convincingly communicate their engagement with both the score and one another. Intimate settings showcasing each of the individual ensemble members demand immensely interpretative coherence and individual artistry.

“In its original definition thought of as music performed in a private group setting for pleasure by amateur musicians ‘in their chamber,’ one may argue that the profound interplay of diverse voices virtually defines the entire canon of Western music as chamber music,” remarks Arnold Steinhardt, renowned first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet and a student and later collaborator of Stern, during a spellbinding panel with the eminent CMS Encounters faculty. “I at least think of all musical interplay as chamber music,” he adds.

Session in progress, masters discussing details, from right: violinist Arnold Steinhardt, pianist Leon Fleisher, violinist Shmuel Ashkenazi   (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)

To a great extent, chamber music’s mounting success in the United States has profited from concepts expanding on it as a communal experience, and it does not come as a surprise that most mentors involved in the Encounters workshops developed their love for this – up until recently – underappreciated art form at one point or another in their lives at Marlboro’s Chamber Music School and Festival. Incorporating novices and masters in collaborative rehearsals and performances, Marlboro is a unique educational environment, and Marlboro’s alumni play a huge role in cultivating America’s greater chamber music scene, infusing it with strong musical and personal relationships forged throughout weeks spent in Vermont’s summer hills.

Relating pianistic ideas: Wu Han in a workshop session at CMS Encounters, Photo credit: Lilian Finckel

Wu Han fondly remembers her days at Marlboro: “I was used to performing solo repertoire and big concerti as a soloist with an orchestra. But it’s a lonely road, practicing alone, travelling alone, and when I came to Marlboro, I fell in love with the whole idea of this intimate interaction. Having to match all the strings’ colors, study the others’ scores…it’s a different process and you are not just looking at your own part, but one gets to learn the entire concept of the music and to explore it together; I am so grateful for the discovery. Opening up your own sound world and being challenged to match the other musicians’ voices changes you every time anew, you become a different pianist each time, and that goes for performing as well as for teaching.”

Now with the inner-city efforts of Chamber Music Encounters, coined after the series of spirited chamber music workshops offered by the late Isaac Stern, CMS continues where Stern has left off, taking up his strategy to implement diverse artistic vision into the coaching process. Stern had commenced this path, with initial workshops held in 1994 in Jerusalem and at Carnegie Hall, and some exemplary sessions in Germany, Holland and Japan. Right up until his passing in 2001, Stern, the iconic violin virtuoso and musical activist whose personal crusade saved Carnegie Hall from looming destruction, passionately taught his workshops shoulder to shoulder with an illustrious faculty of colleagues and friends, tirelessly shaping and inspiring an entire generation of young musicians, including the attending Encounters faculty; most of the Encounters mentors have taught in collaboration with Stern; next to pianist Wu Han and violinist David Finckel, pianist Leon Fleisher, violinists Shmuel Ashkenasi, Ani Kavafian and Arnold Steinhardt, as well as Juilliard’s provost and dean Ara Guzelimian are partaking in the workshops at CMS.

Relying on the same pedagogical cross-pollination of interactive teaching and learning, students are coached by multiple faculty members in various groupings. Bringing differing opinions and solutions to the table allows each student to examine facets of his or her playing in a communal quest, focusing on varying concepts, but with the universal goal of learning how to learn, and how to develop their own artistic perspectives.

Close up investigation by Leon Fleisher during a workshop (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)

While different input may be confusing at times, an investigative game plan that leads to the why – instead of blindly following one-dimensional instructions of how to – certainly engages creative responsiveness. Says Wu Han: “I wished something like this had existed when I was a budding musician.” Like Finckel, Steinhardt, Fleisher, Ashkenazy and Kavafian on the faculty of Stern’s sessions, she experienced the impact of the clever concept. “It is so helpful to include some open ended discussions during one’s studies. Sometimes you realize the fruitions of a suggestion only later on. There are so many choices and if one just listens to one teacher during weekly lessons, this curiosity of exploring different possibilities may not get sparked – and then, where is the searching for answers with this incredible ‘aha’ moment that brings one to the next level and makes for a true artist’s development?”

Arnold Steinhardt explains his view of what makes the experience different: “Just like in Stern’s workshops, where he was not only interested in getting to the finished product but rather looked for the kernel of truth that could stand for the general viewpoint of how to look at music, we are focusing on crucial musical elements in the students’ performance that would be easily glossed over in regular lessons, trying to cover a lot of repertoire. Here, varied outlooks can open different points of entry for further artistic exploration.”

“Inquiry was at the center of Stern’s spirit,” explains Ara Guzelimian, who, comparing varying approaches through historic recordings, lectures on the differences in performance styles over time. While working with Stern, serving as artistic director of programming and education at Carnegie Hall, he says he “was hugely influenced by Stern’s unique concept of wrestling with multiple approaches. Stern did not believe in the usual master class setting, promoting submissiveness. Exploring collective inspiration was at the core of his idea of life as a musician.”

Faculty and students at CMS’ Encounters   (Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)

This summer, 15 students were geared to experience inspirational encounters with their prominent coaches. Split up into their performance groups for four of the repertoire’s staples: Mozart’s quartet in D minor, K.421, Schubert’s Trio No.1 in B-flat major, Op.99, Beethoven’s trio in B-flat major and Brahm’s quintet in F minor, Op.34, students practiced and were coached together.

The atmosphere is generously friendly, with temperamental discussions and casual jokes varying slightly depending on the different combinations of faculty members and ensemble groups. When it comes to the serious efforts dispersed behind the music stands, doubled up scores and insights shared from heartfelt convictions forged during years of firsthand experiences, there is no business as usual. During a fiery discussion, these mentors, sometimes with hands on demonstration, wild gesticulations, whistling, humming or rhythmic stomping, can sudden upon any minute detail that may unhinge or open up a world of musical ideas.

The characteristic elements of Stern’s workshops continue to live on in these interactions, even during a tight schedule of coaching sessions: “Mr. Stern opposes the idea of the master class and prefers teaching with others. This is chamber teaching of chamber music,” writes Philip Setzer, violinist of the Emerson String Quartet, of his firsthand experience working with Stern in an article, published in 2000 in the New York Times.

Everyone working under CMS’ Encounters faculty has been influenced by decisive moments and prolific individuals in their lives, which led them to careers in music. And while each of the coaches brings their own differently-flavored personalities and viewpoints as well as specific instrumental expertise to the sessions, it becomes obvious early on that the success of the workshops’ structural dynamic comes through its reflection on chamber music’s own distinct platform – making music in intimate collaboration, keeping it fresh for the students and the faculty.

Students’ work is under scrutiny from different angles throughout the sessions. Pianists mixing into strings’ fingerings and violinists suggest the pianist’s singing tone does not project enough. Sound a little intense? Perhaps, but the insightful disagreements between coaches not only keeps the process colorful, but can lead to eye-opening realizations. 

Performance at Alice Tully Hall, Sahun Hong, piano; Stephen Waarts,violin; James Jeonghwan Kim, cello; page turner Daniel Colalillo – Franz Schubert Trio No.1 in B-flat major, D.898, Op.99

(Photo credit: Cherylynn Tsushima)

Final performance at Alice Tully Hall: Jenny Chen, piano; Petery Ilvonen, violin; Brandon Garbot, violin; Cong Wu, viola; Jiyoung Lee, cello; page turner Daniel Colalillo– Johannes Brahms Quintet in F minor, Op.34  (Photo credit: Cherylynn Tsushima)

A better balance between players, more expressiveness and fine-tuned changes in tempi, and coherence in color and rhythm are noticeable after each session, but the students’ most important lessons lie deeper than just surface improvements in their playing and collaboration. The students have not just been prepared to perform in a successful concert at Alice Tully Hall, which evidenced much of the sessions’ fruitful advice. They have not just partaken in a beautiful performance of a Schubert trio or a Brahms quintet. These students will remember the nods towards exploring further, and look to carry on the musical discussion they’ve become a part of in these workshops for years to come, and perhaps even inspire others in turn.

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Pianist Evgeny Kissin, concluding thePerspectives series at Carnegie Hall’s 125th anniversary season – which also celebrated his illustrious pianistic solo debut here 25 years ago – wooed audiences once more with Rachmaninoff’s beloved Piano Concerto No. 2, before taking a previously announced leave of absence from concertizing in the USA. The concert amounted to a farewell observation on the series’ narrative, revealing the artist’s uniquely personal artistic journey. Capture by Simone Massoni    This article was published by the author on Blogcritics Magazine

Since that memorable Carnegie Hall debut, with people waving hundred-dollar bills to scalp a ticket on mobbed street blocks around the sold-out concert hall, New Yorkers’ enthusiasm for Kissin does not seem to have diminished in the least. Coming out of the Soviet Union as a prodigal talent with staggering musicality, his reputation had preceded his eagerly awaited appearances before both Russian and world audiences; and perhaps like no other, this pure Romantic has united them in an ecstatic communal sense.

It was Carnegie Hall’s centennial season, 1990-91, and Kissin, age 19, was – as in the current season – the notable opening act, one of the very few artists who had never had to ask, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He simply arrived, and performed annually from then on.

“What makes a performance great?” I once asked him, and he simply remarked: “It has to be convincing.” Carnegie Hall initiated its Perspectives series in 1999 to further explore the complexity of what makes an artist great by showcasing leading artists’ individual interests and bringing in their musical friends. The previous pianist the series focused on was Sir Andràs Schiff in 2011-12.

This season’s in-depth close-up opened channels of discovery into Kissin’s enigmatic persona and vocation on stage, in five different programs.

Beyond bringing some of the musical milestones of Kissin’s career full circle, the series portrayed the artist who at 44, unabashed by the persistent trail of Wunderkind status, has proven he can carve out new paths of artistic growth and a remarkable personal departure. His choices of programs are always “a matter of love,” and it is the kind of intimate, sanctified love that does not warrant further conversation. Notwithstanding his free spirit he feels: “Talking about all kind of things including sex, is great fun – talking about music seems vulgar.”

Knowing how close to his heart his programs are – he usually spends a full touring season with each one – one had to wonder why Chopin, with whose concertos the pianist skyrocketed to stardom and who, as Kissin confesses when pressed on the subject, is the closest to his heart, would not appear in any of his featured programs. Bookending the series with two of the arch-romantic Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff concerts, Kissin instead curated his classical solo recitals with works by Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms in conjunction with the Spanish composers Albéniz and Larregla.

Highlighting his extraordinary temperament en galore with the Spanish rhythmic idiom added a most welcome geographic twist to the Germanic precursors. The recital program, which was performed twice that same week in November, was legendary not only because his “Appassionata” was nothing short of a revelation, but because a repeat performance of the same repertoire, selling out the house twice in a row, had till then been a feat achieved only by Vladimir Horowitz, in 1979.

No one present at Kissin’s concerts, least of all the performer himself, would suspect that concert halls are scrambling to fill their seats at many other quality concerts. Least of all at the truly stirring season’s opening concert, with red carpets rolled out for the occasion all across 57th street.

                                                                                                  Opening of Carnegie Hall’s 125th season. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

If Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic and its departing director Alan Gilbert was meant to be associated with one of Kissin’s own, most triumphant historic performances of the same concerto in 1987, given with Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic when the pianist was just 16, Kissin certainly stood the test of time. While one can’t say if Gilbert was as touched by Kissin’s brilliance as was Karajan, who, according to Karajan’s wife was moved to tears by the genial talent of his chosen young performer, their engagement certainly carried its own merit of excellence, making it also one of Gilbert’s rather gallant collaborations to remember.

On the day following his evening of Yiddish music and poetry, Carnegie’s Executive and Artistic Director Clive Gillinson moderated – at the associates’ level ticket price – a public tête-à-tête on stage, where Kissin appeared relaxed and personable. He humored the audience with anecdotes about Prokofiev and his first meeting with Karajan, as well as his strong-mindedness when it comes to conductors who don’t share his vision. He also recalled some of his earlier years, when his revered only mentor through all these years, Anna Kantor, moved in with the Kissins, following them on their path from Moscow to New York to London.

Turning 93 now, Kantor stays a vibrant member of Kissin’s family, and hers continue to be the ears he trusts the most; until recently she was an integral part of his concert touring entourage and it speaks for their deeply reverent relationship that the pianist continues to play new repertoire through for her.

Evgeny Kissin with Anna Kantor. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

A first was Kissin’s public opening up about becoming inspired and re-inventing himself: “As we live and develop we discover new things in ourselves, of which we were not aware earlier,” he says. “A few years ago, I would have never been able to imagine that I would be writing my own poetry in Yiddish and have it published…I have always hoped and continue to hope that I will always keep improving.”

Almost no trace remains of the admitted former “painfully shy” mannerisms of his younger years. No matter how long the line of beleaguering fans may be, he happily obliges with oddly composed courtesy and at times touching generosity.  

Evgeny Kissin swarmed by his fans at Carnegie Hall after Rachmaninoff concerto performance. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

Perhaps the least successful program of the series was Kissin’s much anticipated novel partnership with violinist Itzhak Perlman in a trio performance with Kissin’s longtime collaborator, cellist Misha Maisky. It was almost surprising that the performance lacked a persuasive harmonious flow of leadership and balance, given the great musicianship of all these artists individually. Perlman’s melodic lines especially seemed to get lost at times acoustically, flanked by Maisky’s and Kissin’s powerful virtuosity.

In contrast, Kissin’s Yiddish evening was in some ways the most significant program of the series. Kissin’s passion project of Yiddish poetry recitation and music by rarely performed Jewish composers illuminated the deeply personal context of his engagement with Jewish culture. The fascinating presentation touched audiences on many levels, highlighting Kissin’s capacity and courage to explore new artistic frontiers. This was the case with works by Ernest Bloch, Alexander Veprik, Alexander Klein, and Mikhail Milner, with which Kissin ventured into modernist and folklore-inspired tunes off the beaten path.

Carnegie Hall Green Room moment: the author with Mischa Maisky and Evgeny Kissin after their collaborative concert

With his nuanced and melodic declamation of poems in the Yiddish idiom of Yitzhak-Leybush Peretz, Kissin captured the lyrical elements and aura of the language with its particular humor and spirit, transporting the transfixed audience into the bygone era of the shtetl. Soulfully baring his heart in every syllable, the magnetic performer – stripped of all his virtuoso veneer – sufficed to fill the hall, momentarily halting time. As in Kissin’s own poem, the evening’s credo points to celebrating our intrinsic individualism, which, if painful to bear at times, brings fulfillment through truth to ourselves.

Ani maymin                                                                                Credo     Translation by Barrnett Zumoff

Shoyn Terekh hot gezogt zayn kleynem zun mit shrek:        After Terah* said fearfully to his young son:

“Far vos bist nit aza, vi ale?”.                                                     “Why are you not like all the others?”

Un s’iz geven azoy in yedn kant un ek,                                      into which our brutal fate cast us.and it was so

vuhin di dolye undzere brutale                                                    in every nook and cranny                                              

flegt undz nit varfn. S’iz dokh undzer koved,                            It’s to our honor, after all,

vos tomid zaynen mir geven getray tsu zikh                            that we have always been faithful to ourselves,

un hobm ot di khokhme oysgekovet:                                         and have forged this wise saying:

“Ven ikh vel zayn vi yener, ver vet zayn vi ikh?”.                     “If I am like the others, who will be like me?”

                                                                                                          *Abraham’s father 

This bent of Kissin’s talent was earlier introduced on a smaller scale at New York’s Yivo Institute and at his momentous debut at Charles and Robyn Krauthammer’s Pro Musica Hebraica series, at Washington’s Kennedy Center in 2014; but it was a first at Carnegie Hall, drawing New Yorkers into Kissin’s other personal passion. (See my article about Evgeny Kissin on a mission to celebrate his Jewish heritage.)

Evgeny Kissin at Pro Musica Hebraica. Photo: Ilona Oltuski

For the very first time in 2002, during Verbier’s prestigious festival in the Suisse Alps, the festival’s director Martin Engstroem encouraged Kissin to recite Russian and Yiddish poetry as an extracurricular presentation on stage. Kissin agreed, but only if other artists would participate as well. The ones who had confirmed, among them Zubin Mehta, had to pull out at the last minute leaving Kissin “to wet his feet,” as he recalled. What a happy coincidence it turned out to be, bringing his previously private predilection into the spotlight.

For Kissin, the Yiddish language represents an important cultural territory of the Jewish people. On a personal level it became a reminiscence of his childhood, and peaceful summer months spent at his Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents’ datshka. During his childhood, Kissin was made aware of anti-Semitic sentiments; derogatory slurs were not unusual. Not yet aware of Israel’s existence, Kissin envisioned himself uniting with his people, as a grownup, in Birobidzhan – the Russian territory with an official Jewish status, which became a center of Jewish culture at the time it was founded under Stalin, in 1934.

                                                                                                                                                          Evgeny Kissin with Martin Engstroem in Verbier. Photo: Ilona Oltuski               

Kissin’s interest in his native Russian poetry and literature were closely followed by his interest in Yiddish culture and its language, which he had initially taught himself. Even though he grew up completely assimilated into Soviet society, he felt a strong connection to his ethnic heritage and always had a special place in his heart for Israel. After being in the public eye for a long time, he deployed his voice not only for numerous humanitarian causes, but also to protest a growing anti-Israel sentiment he observed living in London and Paris. In December 2009, his open letter to the BBC in protest of its perceived biased reporting made headlines. In 2010 he explained to me why he had spoken out: “I just felt that it was no longer possible to remain silent and not protest….my motivation came from the dramatic increase of anti-Israel slander.” (See my article, “The Artist as Citizen.”) His fan-website features a broad selection of sources in support of Israel.

When we met at his first solo concert in Jerusalem the following year during his commanding Liszt tour, he was engulfed in the topic. (In 1988 he went on his very first trip to Israel with the Moscow Virtuosi Orchestra.)

Performing in Jerusalem meant the world to him and he matched his sentiment with a dramatic biblical stance: “Im Eshkachech Yerushalayim Tishkach Yimini (If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten).”

Despite not living in the Promised Land himself, he initiated action to fully demonstrate his allegiance: in December of 2013 Kissin took on Israeli citizenship. His evolving sense of Jewish identity certainly plays a decisive role in his creative discoveries within its history, language and music and beyond that in Israel’s modern-day crisis. During one summer at the Verbier festival, Anna Kantor, concerned about this (to her mind) superfluous extracurricular activity, turned to me, remarking: “Ah politics, who needs politics…he should sit and play the piano.” I am certain the sentiment is shared by many, who would prefer an artist being removed from anything that could view the man and citizen behind the artist. Alas, despite his performance schedule of about 40 concerts a year worldwide, Kissin’s creativity obviously requires many different stimulating outlets, certainly feeding his extraordinary imagination at the piano.

Just some days after his Yiddish recital, we met over tea and he brought the newest chapter of his novel. In his steadfast timbre, Kissin read it out loud in one sitting. He did not touch his tea. He was excited to share his modern-day drama depicting an opera-inspired Russian heroine’s suffering with deep sentiment, in a pictorial and captivating style. Here is an excerpt:

From the novel by Evgeny Kissin, translated by Barrnett Zumoff

Book 1: Outside It Was Snowing
The smoke from the cigarette was beginning to mix with the emanations from the Indian aromatic sticks. There was no ashtray in the house, so the cigarette ash fell on the floor immediately after each light tap of her finger. She kept slowly and deeply inhaling the smoke, filling her entire body with the mild poison; oh well – the deed is already done, so relax and calm down.

Three thoughts kept drilling into her mind: “Sasha, my darling”…”I’ll get the money as fast as I can!” …and “Now I‘ve really become a whore – I’ve lived to see the day!”

“Man proposes and God disposes,” her wise grandmother Chana used to say. Her grandmother’s words had sounded convincing to her even then, though she was still a child and of course couldn’t understand what they meant. Now, in the past few days, she somehow understood them with her whole being, from the tips of her fingers to the depths of her soul, perhaps as never before in her life. When she was still a young girl and had just begun to discover the world of pleasure, she used to fantasize about taking money for love. For instance, a nice man she liked would come to her and propose to spend time with her, and she would answer him playfully: “If you pay!” Now, however, she didn’t get to choose only nice clients…

Five months did go by after the Russian heroine of his novel appeared, and reverberations of sentiments stirred by Kissin’s Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 slowly filtered through the hall.

Nothing less had been expected from a moving farewell concert by Kissin, with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

For this final concert of the series, Kissin reunited with his longtime friend, colleague and frequent collaborator James Levine, who, as the Met’s leading force for 45 years, has just announced his final bow as music director.

Photo: NPR.org, Maestro James Levine

The eminent conductor, winner of 10 Grammy awards, entered in his wheelchair, elevated by a special mechanism onto a towering conductor’s podium.

Kissin – and Levine – fans had witnessed this somewhat involved process in the hall already in 2013 when the artists collaborated on Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, when Levine, returning to the concert stage after injury and two years of absence, was greeted with a standing ovation.

Kissin has played the world over with an extraordinary number of first-rate conductors, but Maestro Levine, the pianist once told me, is among those he really loves the most. For several years, Kissin and Levine were both at home in New York. Together they recorded Beethoven’s Second and Fifth Concertos in 1997. As a special highlight their all-Schubert piano duo program, recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 2005, speaks volumes of their alliance in temperament and artistic perception. It is also among Levine’s most favorite recordings, he told Kissin (even though for acoustic reasons and perhaps also to facilitate unrestrained physical motions, the music intended for one piano four hands was performed on two separate grand pianos).

While Kissin’s beautiful singing lines where at times marred just slightly by the piano’s dry acoustics, the strong personal connection was palpable in their take on Rachmaninoff, on a beautiful night in May for Kissin’s last concert of the series.

Familiar with Kissin’s 1989 recording of the concerto with Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra, I had never before heard this all-time favorite concerto played live by Kissin.

Rachmaninoff himself gave the premiere of the work composed in 1901, which established his fame and marked the end of a severe depression he had suffered.

While Gergiev’s recording is certainly notable, already the entrance, just so slightly off, speaks of a much less deeply rooted musical bond than that between Kissin and Levine. In the recording Gergiev paints – at times more daringly – with a bigger brush, but Levine is a master at bringing out all the hidden nuances. If his Spanish repertoire already was full of vitality and rejoicing in the intricacy of mischievous rhythmic skill, in Rachmaninoff the drama got taken further. But despite the constant shifts between tender palettes and multiple climaxes there was nothing mise-en-scene, only a profound myriad of fine-tuned dexterity.

If Carnegie Hall’s Perspective series set out to convey different angles of the performer’s aptitude with multiple genres and composers’ objectives, we witnessed it all. The blissful melancholy projected in this last Russian gem was matched only by his intimate poetry recitation, with a bared soulfulness that brought one closer into the world of this artist, and perhaps with one’s own humanity. With unrelenting inquisitiveness and willingness to challenge the status quo, Kissin does not rest on his laurels, which indicates there is much more to come; and how happy he looks, especially when conveying another scoop of news to me: Kissin is now also trying his hand at composing, and some of his installments, which include a chamber music work, have already acquired much interest among some distinguished musicians. Previously just something he dabbled with during his childhood, and put aside in favor of an exclusive focus on performance, composing has now taken solid hold, adding yet another facet to Kissin’s opus of discovery.

New York will feel the absence of this remarkable individual whose innermost workings can be found in his art. In the meantime, I am sure all his fans will join me in wishing him bon voyage as he spreads his artistic inspiration abroad.

1 year ago |
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Elena Baksht is something – again. The Russian pianist, founding director of the Southampton Arts Festival and music educator has now implemented “The Arts Circle,” into New York’s cultural scene.

A recital evening at the venerable Koscuiszko Foundation on the Upper East Side, featured the inspired pianist with the eminent Italian flutist Mario Carbotta, in a program titled A poetic journey from Prokofiev to Fellini and Kundalini. The connection between both musicians had been made through a conductor both artists had performed with; the details had been sorted out through their mutual management. I always find it fascinating how the world of the arts functions; its perhaps not as different as in other specific related fields, but I find it true that people somehow connect through the arts in a different way. Baksht put it sweetly: “In these two days of rehearsals, before the concert Mario and I really connected. It was difficult at first, Mario’s English could be better, he does not speak a word of Russian and my Italian is non-existent. So there was not a lot of talking, but once we started to rehearse, we understood each other perfectly well. The music was all we needed, we looked at each other and new what we had to do. We are indeed quite fortunate to be speak this powerful language, the language of music.”

This is also at the core of the goal,  Elena is aspiring to. Bringing people together from different walks of life and of course, getting them involved in the circle.

She threw in all her energy and talent, especially lovely were her poems, recited in Russian. Mrs. Baksht also brought in fashion from Geraldine Brower’s Bridal Garden, a special collection of high end, donated designer wear. The proceeds of sales through Bridal Garden, go to social benefits.

A nice idea to throw fashion into the mix. As Baksht told me, last time they actually had an entire fashion show to the music of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an exhibition and its musical promenade. But this time, the slender pianist took it upon herself to model some of the designer’s dresses, obviously enjoying herself and looking quite fab, in them.

I would have thought it may have been a bit distracting to have to change every couple of minutes in between performing, sometimes quite challenging pieces and returning to the piano. But Baksht did not seem to mind – and there was more.In addition to the fashionable presentation and the pianist’s accompaniment, which was at its best in Prokofiev’s Sonata op.94 in D-minor for Flute and Piano, Baksht recited her poetry in English and in her native Russian. While it was nice of course to understand the English words, I was much more taken by her native Russian fluidity of declamation, even her voice seemed to have a more natural flow and indeed a lyrical quality.

Many of the audience members were acquainted with each other,  some were supporters and fans of Baksht’s Southampton Arts Festival initiative, they all visit during the summer months. It looks like this will be a busy summer for the energetic artist and she has some transcendent thoughts about the energy that drives her, and seems to come to her so easily: “What generates that flow of energy, what ignites it? Can we capture that moment where our soul opens up, longs for something outside of ourselves, expands to receive the energy from above?  The Kabbalah says that all the Universe desires from us is that moment of the soul, that longing to connect with the Divine – that longing which is the movement of the soul’s unity with the Divine, the memory of being an integral part of a whole.”

1 year ago |
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